Senate debates

Tuesday, 12 February 2019


Tasmania: Bushfires, Climate Change

8:30 pm

Photo of Lisa SinghLisa Singh (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Once again, bushfires have plagued Tasmania for the start of 2019. It is not something that Tasmanians are unfamiliar with. We suffered terrible losses around Lake Mackenzie in the Tasmanian central plateau in 2016 and the destruction of the fishing town of Dunalley in 2013 and, of course, so many Tasmanians, including my parents, remember the 1967 bushfires that plagued the state, killing 64 people and destroying whole towns. But this January, 2019, was Australia's hottest month since records began. It was Tasmania's driest January ever. The Tasmania Fire Service has stated that fuel loads were 20 per cent to 30 per cent drier than average. Tasmania's maximum temperatures were much more than three degrees above the long-term average for the month. So, of course, the fires came, and they haven't stopped. Already they've burnt some three per cent of Tasmania's forests, with the Central Highlands and the Huon Valley suffering extensive devastation.

It is a climate change tragedy, a tragedy that has, despite the outstanding work of firefighters from Tasmania, the mainland and our neighbours across in New Zealand and even with the help of water bombers from overseas, removed a horrifying amount of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area off the map. We have lost homes, businesses and tens of thousands of hectares of alpine vegetation. The flames were scorching the edge of the largest remaining forest of thousand-year-old King Billy pines in the world. We have lost key wilderness tourist attractions, like the iconic Tahune AirWalk in Geeveston. I have fond memories of visiting the Tahune AirWalk—the treetops of it—with my children when they were young. Everyone loved this incredible wilderness attraction of feeling like you were almost on top of the world, walking amongst the trees. But now the incredible photos taken by Matthew Newton of the ash debris after the wildfires just show how devastating they've been through Tahune and elsewhere. The owner of the Tahune AirWalk, Ken Stronach, reflected, though, that we do have now an opportunity to re-create this attraction and give it a rebirth as the forest slowly regenerates over the years ahead. I do hope the air walk will take us into the sky again to join with Australia's tallest tree, which, I'm glad to report, was protected from the bushfires burning in the Huon Valley. At 100 metres tall, the centurion tree, a Eucalyptus regnans and the world's tallest flowering plant, is near the Tahune AirWalk, but the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service and the Tasmania Fire Service were able to protect this globally significant tree that lives in Tasmania.

As the fires burnt southern parts of the state, I was walking the iconic Three Capes Track—48 kilometres of cliff-hugging wilderness in the Tasmanian peninsula which is just one per cent of Tasmania's land area but has one-third of Tasmania's flora. What an incredible place our island home is, and what an amazing walk. From the melaleucas to the moorlands, to the Cape Pillar she-oaks and sea cliffs and views of past lives with the lighthouse on Tasman Island, from the Blade to the fairytale rainforests, then back on the coastal cliffs with Cathedral Rock, the Monument, Hippolyte Rocks and the Totem Pole, and all the Tasmanian plant species and wildlife in between. But as I walked along the cliffs, I could see and I could smell the smoke drifting all the way to New Zealand from fires 100 kilometres or more away. In fact, it was reported that New Zealand firefighters were called to attend a fire near Milford Sound due to thick smoke in the area, only for the crew to discover that there was no fire to be put out. Indeed, the smoke was coming from Tasmania.

Within this tragedy, though, heroes have emerged. Heroes like Geeveston pharmacist, Ian Magill, who stayed, despite the emergency warning for his town, to ensure that other residents in the town had access to urgent medical support; like firefighters and volunteers and those that travelled from interstate and overseas to help protect lives and property; like local Tasmanian volunteer firefighter Tom Andrews, who missed Christmas, missed his son's first birthday and even missed his wedding anniversary. Local ABC Radio was a vital source of information, and journalists routinely went into the heart of the action to keep us informed and provide life-saving warnings to local residents.

But if the experts are to be listened to, this extreme heat is a sign of things to come. December 2018 was the warmest on record. There were heatwaves in every state and territory according to the Bureau of Meteorology, who have warned that temperatures are set to rise further in years ahead as a result of climate change. Climate scientists from the University of Tasmania have warned that dry lightning strikes, like the ones that started some 60 fires across Tasmania in mid-January, including the fires that I've already talked about, will increase in frequency because climate change and the hot, dry conditions that turn Tasmania into a tinderbox will become more common. Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan said:

Tasmania's world heritage area was our Great Barrier Reef, and, like the Great Barrier Reef, it seemed doomed by climate change.

Flanagan points out:

Climate change isn't just happening. It's happening far quicker than has been predicted. Each careful scientific prediction is rapidly overtaken by the horror of profound natural changes that seem to be accelerating, with old predictions routinely outdone by the worsening reality—hotter, colder, wetter, drier, windier, wilder, and ever more destructive.

Tasmania's iconic leatherwood honey industry has been destroyed as part of this as well. Even before the fires, these unprecedented temperatures had already dried the flowers of Tasmania's native leatherwood trees, unique to our island and found only in the cold and remote wilderness currently ablaze in the Gell River, Tahune and West Coast fires. The hives have now been burnt, and in the sad words of Tasmanian Beekeepers Association Vice-President, Peter Norris:

Leatherwood doesn't handle fire, it takes a couple of hundred years to come back.

     …      …      …

We're never going to see it recover—once it's gone, it's gone.

Meeting the challenge of future wildfire in Tasmania is a matter not just for our state, but also for this place. Australia already experiences severe problems with wildfire, coastal and river management, and flooding and drought, and yet we're only at the beginning of runaway climate change. The 2018 Red Cross World Disasters Report ranked Australia 10th in the world for the cost of damage caused by disasters between 2008 and 2017, with a disaster damage bill of $38 billion. The damage these more-regular extreme-weather events keep delivering will demand money and time to rebuild, while also devastating productivity as higher average temperatures and lower rainfall smash our agricultural production.

Everyone knows that there needs to be action and that action should have should have started years ago—but we really need it now. That's why we do need bipartisan action from federal and state politicians to try and meet or mitigate this threat. Everyone knows that Labor is committed to cutting our carbon pollution by 45 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030 and to reaching net zero emissions by 2050. But at this moment in time it is important to recognise how communities have come together in times of crisis, as we have seen in Tasmania, and the resilience of communities. I thank every remote area firefighter who kept fighting those fires beyond exhaustion in conditions beyond imagination; every volunteer firefighter who worked day in and day out on the front line and behind fire fronts to help and protect Tasmanian communities; and every person in those communities impacted by the firestorm who have faced this disaster with courage and resilience.